The most stunning thing about the David Mamet play that opened last night is how clunky it is.
The man's written books about drama and filmmaking, so you'd think his missile against a hot-button issue would at least be well put together. But "Race," which Mamet also directed, is a bewildering muddle. Audiences might expect this type of awkwardly constructed, flailing acrimony from a 15-year-old with a Twitter account, not from a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Jack Lawson (James Spader) and Henry Brown (David Alan Grier) are lawyers interviewing a potential client named Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), who's accused of raping a black woman. A beautiful associate in a short skirt, Susan (Kerry Washington), silently lurks in the background. Since she's a female in a Mamet play, she doesn't get a last name and is bound to be a duplicitous time bomb.
These legal eagles have a funny way of dealing with a prospective cash cow: Brown goes on the offensive, declaring that the case is all about race and that white people have no business even talking about that stuff anyway.
Incredibly, for someone meant to be rich and powerful, Strickland sheepishly takes it. As played by Thomas (the erstwhile John-Boy Walton), he's such a wimp that you couldn't imagine him assaulting anyone.
The hostilities move at a fast clip (the show's about 90 minutes), with the requisite amount of profanity. Four-letter words are to Mamet what a vintage
Bordeaux is to wine critic Robert Parker: Both swirl the object of their affection around their mouths with relish, then spit. It's more fun for them than for us.
At least Spader holds our interest, finding nuances in a cardboard character. His Lawson could be a beleaguered good guy, a repressed lech, a gullible victim of political correctness -- or all of the above.
Mamet could have used a legal potboiler to convey his dubious message -- race relations are messed up beyond repair, and that makes white people's lives really hard. But why suggest when you can bludgeon?
This full-on approach might have been entertaining (and the first act has its moments), but the second half sinks into absurdity. Revelations pile up, and when Susan finally unveils her agenda, she makes the vengeful student of "Oleanna" look like a model of rationality.
It's no coincidence that the plot is kick-started by a rape and that the betrayer is a woman: The show's nominally about race, but the elephant in the room is gender.
The issue's on Mamet's mind, even if he claims to go after another target. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, would we be watching "Sex" instead?
No sooner had the curtain fallen on David Mamet’s “Race” the other night than the predominantly white audience rose, smiling, to its feet. Standing ovations on Broadway have become a conditioned reflex, but this one seemed a shade more self-conscious and self-congratulatory than usual. You could argue this was the perfect coda to a play that examines the self-consciousness that descends on American white people when they talk about, or to, black people.
But that easy demonstration of approval didn’t feel like a reaction to gladden the heart of a dramatist hoping to provoke, to stir, to disturb. As the cast, led by an excellent James Spader, took its curtain calls, there was a relieved feeling that the surprisingly slack “Race,” which opened Sunday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, had registered well within the comfort zone of those watching it.
Though the play made pointed use of sexual and ethnic words that are still seldom heard in polite discussion, these elicited far more giggles than gasps. I couldn’t help longing for the days when a new play by Mr. Mamet so knocked the breath out of you that you wouldn’t think of standing up afterward until you were sure your legs would support you.
“Race,” directed by its author, is a definite improvement on Mr. Mamet’s previous new work on Broadway, “November,” which last year presented Nathan Lane as a sitting American president who talked like a dirty sitcom. Though the first act of “Race” is similarly propelled by barbed one-liners, its second act offers reassuring evidence of Mr. Mamet’s scalpel-edged intelligence. And the issues it raises, particularly on the ethnic varieties of shame and the universal nature of guilt, should offer ample nutrition for many a post-theater dinner conversation.
Yet despite the tension of its subject, and an abundance of the corkscrew plot twists for which Mr. Mamet is known, “Race” lacks real dramatic tension. The fine four-member cast — which also includes David Alan Grier, Richard Thomas and Kerry Washington — never acquires that crackling, syncopated urgency that makes a Mamet play sing and sting. It’s as if the topic at hand were too important to be dressed up with the distractions of style.
In its opening scene, set in the conference room of a law firm (designed with tome-laden stateliness by Santo Loquasto), “Race” suggests it might be a jurisprudence-minded variation on Mr. Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” (which was revived exhilaratingly on Broadway in 2008, also at the Barrymore). Here, instead of two movie producers conversing in the cynical insider language of their trade, we have two lawyers, equally fluent in their jaded professional lingo: Jack Lawson (the white Mr. Spader) and Henry Brown (the black Mr. Grier).
As in “Speed-the-Plow” there is also a female neophyte in the picture, who may not be as naïve as she seems and — being a woman in a play by David Mamet — is likely to throw a wrench into the masculine machinery. That’s Susan (a subdued Ms. Washington), a new African-American recruit who has arrived in time to be on the team of what promises to be the firm’s stickiest case: the defense of Charles Strickland (Mr. Thomas), a rich and famous white guy accused of raping a young black woman.
The question of Strickland’s guilt leads to a broader examination of cultural conscience and paranoia. At the same time Mr. Mamet delivers a topical detective story, with sequins among the prime evidentiary clues.
Jack and Henry’s initial interview of their prospective client allows them to deliver knowing epigrams about the amorality of the legal profession and the parasitic nature of the news media. More important, the encounter lets Mr. Mamet dissect the layers of perception that come into play any time white versus black (and man versus woman, and have versus have-not) is the center of a sensational trial. The race of each character informs these perceptions as well, though not always how you would expect.
“You want to tell me about black folks?” says Henry, baiting the distressed but indignant Charles as the play begins. There follows a list of the stereotypes that dare not speak their name when it comes to the contemplation of African-Americans by their Caucasian counterparts, and Mr. Mamet runs with increasingly elaborate riffs on that theme.
Some of these might once have shocked, but by now most have been thoroughly excavated by black stand-up comics, from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock. Know, though, that Mr. Mamet is also laying the foundation for broader, even existential questions — including the shared human need to confess and atone — and for some “gotcha” revelations in the second half. (Even with the 12-minute intermission specified in the program, the play clocks in at well under two hours.)
An assured craftsman, Mr. Mamet builds his structure with precision and with what feels like a certain weariness with his own facility. What’s lacking is the fusion of story, theme and character that lends bona fide suspense to his plays. In “American Buffalo,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Oleanna” (which received a less-than-exemplary Broadway production this season), the dialogue is fueled by the desperation of the characters. Much of the excitement in listening to them comes from hearing how their words, initially used as tools and weapons, become their prisons.
In “Race” words accumulate less into portraits than attitudes. Obviously there’s a lot at stake for the people of “Race,” especially for Charles, whom Mr. Thomas portrays with a cunning air of masochistic martyrdom. But there’s only one real character in the play, a paucity you become fully aware of in the second act.
That’s when you realize there’s more to Jack than the stance of a predatory legal eagle who surveys humanity from contemptuous heights. (“I think all people are stupid,” Jack says, answering a question from Susan. “I don’t think blacks are exempt.”) It turns out that Jack’s own confused notions of race are embodied in one specific relationship, and that Mr. Spader has been quietly defining that relationship, and its impact on Jack’s behavior, from the get-go.
Having put in many television seasons playing cynical lawyers (“The Practice,” “Boston Legal”), Mr. Spader could play Jack with his heavy-lidded eyes closed. He keeps them wide open, and considers every inflection and gesture in creating the one role in “Race” with more layers than the who’s-scamming-whom plot. He’s good enough to make you wish that Mr. Mamet had given his other actors the same opportunity.
The Playbill for David Mamet's Race features a photo of a woman's body clad in a tight minidress. The monochrome shot makes it hard to determine her skin color, but she's obviously young and very fit.
It's a hint that the concerns addressed in Mamet's new play (*** out of four), which opened Sunday at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre, aren't limited to the title subject.
Race is set in the law offices of Jack Lawson, who is white, and his black partner Henry Brown. We meet them as they're deciding whether to represent Charles Strickland, a white man accused of raping a black woman.
By the end of the first act, Lawson is engaging Susan, a young black lawyer who works for them, in a debate about how best to present the case. "This isn't about sex, it's about race," contends Susan, to which Lawson replies, "What's the difference?"
Not much, in this play. Race may be the central theme, but Mamet, who also directed, is more interested in how differences – in color, gender, ethnicity and class – foster a lack of communication and breed resentment. "It's a complicated world, full of misunderstandings," Lawson observes. "That's why we have lawyers."
The line seems at once sarcastic and pedantic. Though Race can be bitingly funny, some of Lawson and Brown's comments threaten to veer into speechifying. Lawson, especially, seems at times to be venting on behalf of the playwright, whose disdain for the strictures of political correctness is well known.
It doesn't help that Susan –the only woman who appears on stage – emerges as the weakest character, thanks in part to Kerry Washington's lackluster performance. Like Carol in Mamet's Oleanna, Susan is enigmatic, and her motives become more suspect as the play proceeds; it's hard to tell whether Washington's stiffness is meant to suggest that Susan may herself be an amateur actress.
There are no such problems with James Spader, who as Lawson offers a pitch-perfect combination of wit, weariness and cool brutality. David Alan Grier's earthier, perhaps wiser Brown is a worthy foil, while Richard Thomas' Strickland is convincingly conflicted.
And Mamet deserves credit for a briskly entertaining, if flawed, study. It is indeed a world full of misunderstandings, and Race offers an absorbing glimpse.
As one of the characters in David Mamet's teasing faux-polemic on the subject says, "Race is the most incendiary topic in our history." The slender play that takes its terse title from that declaration seems hatched more out of an urge to inflame arguments easily triggered in the age of Obama than out of the need to tell this particular story or even to explore the issue with any real conclusiveness. This being Mamet, however, the dialogue is tasty, the confrontations spiky and the observations more than occasionally biting. Slick but hollow, "Race" entertains as it unfolds, but grows increasingly wobbly as it twists its way to an unsatisfying wrap-up.
After venturing with mixed results into the previously uncharacteristic field of farcical comedy in "Romance," "November" and "Keep Your Pantheon," Mamet is back on native soil. There's a whiff of the male-female smackdown of "Oleanna," and distinct structural echoes of "Speed-the-Plow," another flinty account of seesawing machinations. But "Race" is more transparent than either of those plays, both seen in recent Broadway revivals. It riffs artfully on the subtleties of discrimination and its attendant guilt, resentment and shame, and its ambiguities appear designed to stir audiences up into testy debates. But there's not enough meat here to chew on.
Nor is there enough meat for a two-act play. Mamet's production -- his first time directing for Broadway -- barely tops the 90-minute mark, even with an abrupt intermission that sucks a good deal of air out of the drama after a dynamic first act.
All four characters are onstage at the start, their footsteps on the wood floor of designer Santo Loquasto's weighty law office syncopating the beats of the pithy dialogue.
A wealthy, white public figure looking for legal representation after his first choice took a pass, Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas) has been accused of raping a black woman; he claims the sex was consensual. The partners in the small but established firm, white Jack Lawson (James Spader) and black Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), grill the prospective client to assess if this is a case they want. Meanwhile, Susan (Kerry Washington), a young black woman whose role as junior associate or trainee is unspecified, keeps a cool eye on the discussion, leaning silently against the rear wall of legal volumes.
Through a series of errors (or are they?) on Susan's part, the firm ends up listed as the attorneys of record for Strickland, long before the partners are ready to commit. Sensing a powder keg and needled by his own acute awareness of the black-white divide, Henry is especially wary. Unflappable Jack cooks up a workable defense, pertaining to the red sequined dress supposedly torn from the alleged victim. But when that strategy gets harpooned, it begins to look like sabotage.
Mamet throws out a heap of intriguing questions, both broadly ethical and specific to the characters. Is Charles -- a naive man with a conscience, and hence a liability as a client -- guilty or innocent? Did Susan trap them into accepting an unwinnable case to grind her own ax? Was Jack's extensive vetting of new hire Susan a discriminatory invasion prompted by the fact that she's black? Why was she hired after lying on her application? Are white men bound by more circumspect behavioral rules around black women? Are issues of disparity an inevitable hazard of black-white relations?
As Jack spells out to Susan with withering condescension, "I. Know. There is nothing. A white person. Can say to a black person. About Race. Which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing." But the playwright clearly enjoys dancing around this minefield, even if he doesn't arrive much anyplace.
Even more, Mamet savors the antagonistic edge of creating a Machiavellian woman carrying a big mother of an angry chip on her shoulder. But Susan is more plot function than multidimensional character; she plays too much like a reprogrammed version of another distrustful woman who crashes the guys' power party, Karen in "Speed-the-Plow." This contributes to a stiffness in Washington's baldly hostile performance.
Charles is barely more than a cipher, but Thomas' eternally guileless face maintains the mystery as to whether he's an ivory-tower innocent or a creep.
The real enjoyment comes from watching the taut verbal interplay between Spader and Grier. Spader is right at home in the smooth, almost likably reptilian role, and he gets most of the best zinger distillations of ruthless pragmatism to come out of a Mamet play since "Glengarry Glen Ross." His down-to-business phone manner ("Yeah, blah blah the weather and blah blah the market...") says everything we need to know about this guy's scant use for personal niceties. It's slightly implausible, however, that a mind as sharp as Jack's would be the slowest in the room to smell trouble, which undermines the evolving complications.
Grier works a little harder to strip back the vocal personality to the required affectless delivery. But the constant sparks as his brusque barbs ricochet off Spader's make it easy to overlook the fact that the writing's dazzle is all on the surface.
Maybe with further refinement, especially in the third and final scene, this play could be more incisive than just a witty provocation. The bones are certainly there. But as it is, it's a lit fuse that crackles and pops but never quite explodes.